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It’s not about Greg Mortenson

November 18, 2011

Ever since April, when the US newsmagazine show 60 Minutes and writer Jon Krakauer aggressively raised questions about Greg Mortenson and his bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, wherever I go someone inevitably asks me to comment on the situation. I’ve tried to be careful and judicious in my replies because I don’t actually know much, and I’m not directly or officially involved with Greg’s work, although I have been and remain an admirer. But now that it has been more than six months, I feel some things need to be said.

I don’t really mean that things need to be said about Greg himself. My understanding, from people I trust, is that Greg is very close to being able to speak for himself, publicly and forthrightly. Like many others, I look forward to that.

But I’m not waiting around for it, because there’s too much that needs to be done in the meantime. Pakistan’s burgeoning younger generation needs to be educated, for starters, and to do that requires sustained dedication and hard work from many, many people. Anyone who knows the situation in Pakistan knows that Greg’s Central Asia Institute is meeting only a tiny fraction of the need, and in very limited, distinct, and remote geographical areas. There’s a lot more to Pakistan than Baltistan. Anyone who knows the situation also knows that there are other excellent organisations working in education all around Pakistan, such as The Citizens Foundation, Developments in Literacy, the Human Development Foundation, and Zindagi Trust (to name only a few).

But well established, competent, Pakistani-run and ambitious though those groups are, they still are meeting only a fraction of the enormous need. If anything game-changing is ever going to be accomplished, it’s going to require a serious and large-scale engagement with the American public – yes, the American public – for two reasons.

One is that the wider American public is a largely untapped reservoir of potential goodwill and funds to support the cause of a better education system in Pakistan. But, in truth, that goodwill and those funds might not even be necessary, if only Pakistan’s own substantial resources could be properly mobilised.

This is the second and much more important reason the American public must be engaged: The destructive and sinister geopolitical dance of death in which America and Pakistan have trapped themselves and each other is draining material resources, emotional energy, political wherewithal, and attention from urgent human needs. And if the two countries’ governments won’t take the lead in either extricating themselves or working together constructively and with mutual respect toward positive shared goals, then it’s up to private citizens to do that.

This means you and me. And this is where I believe Greg Mortenson has shown real leadership, almost regardless of the truth behind the 60 Minutes allegations. Before the scandal, Three Cups of Tea was more than a bestseller; it was almost a talisman for millions of Americans who wanted to believe not just that girls in remote parts of Pakistan could be educated, but that human beings – all of us – could be better than we apparently are. The last decade-plus has been such a dark time for Pakistanis, Americans, and everyone else, that we desperately crave a constructive and life-affirming project to believe in and support.

Three Cups of Tea met that emotional and spiritual need. And before you retort that Greg’s alleged falsifications undermine the book’s intentions, consider that the need is still just as real regardless. If it is the case that Greg – and his co-author David Oliver Relin, who to his shame has said nothing that I’m aware of since the scandal broke – made stuff up, one thing that most certainly does not imply is that the better world Greg helped us hope for is either impossible or unworthy of our effort. If you have ever heard Greg speak to a student audience, as I did at Texas Christian University in January 2011, then you know how desperately hungry young Americans are for something positive to believe in.

The catch is that reading a book or hearing an inspiring speech is only a first step, not an end in itself. Admiring Greg Mortenson, or anyone else, achieves exactly nothing unless it inspires us to do something ourselves. As Tracy Kidder puts it in Mountains Beyond Mountains, an analogous book about an analogous figure, Dr. Paul Farmer, such people force us to redefine the meaning of the phrase “doing one’s best.” (I addressed similar issues of how Farmer’s work is not the be-all and end-all of what needs to be done in Haiti at an October 15 fundraiser for the Colorado Haiti Project. You can read the text of that speech here.)

And just as it’s unfair and a cop-out to put all the pressure and responsibility on one person to do things we’re not willing to do ourselves, so to demonise that person for failing to be perfect is a corrosive avoidance of our own potential and duty to make ourselves useful. The question Greg’s failures and flaws should be forcing each of us to ask is: “What am I doing?”

Stay tuned for more from me on this topic, including an article about the Building Bridges of Peace conference held October 28 and 29 in Chicago. I moderated a panel at the conference that included Greg’s mother, Jerene Mortenson, and I saw there a rare mixed group of Muslims and non-Muslims, Pakistanis and Americans, meeting in nearly equal numbers, in an encouraging spirit of shared purpose.


Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.